A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“I’ll be getting along,” said Mr Boykin. “Anything you want, give me a tinkle.”

“Well — what about the sticks?” said Monica. “Shall I get them, and have the bill sent to you? Or what?”

Mr Boykin had not foreseen this; he had assumed that Monica would buy her own sticks.

“I’ll have to speak to Mr Andrews about that,” he said. “Don’t do anything until you hear from me.”

“And what about Sir Benedict?”

“We’ll be getting on to him; you wait till you hear from us.”

“Yes — and money? How do I get money to live?”

“Haven’t you any on hand?”

“Very little.” As a matter of fact, Monica had twenty pounds in five-pound notes which she did not mean to touch. That was in­surance against anything going wrong with the Bridgetower Trust. She was young, but she was no fool about money.

“Well, I haven’t had any instructions yet. But don’t worry. I’ll get everything straightened away just as soon as I’ve had a talk with Mr Andrews. A Happy New Year, Miss Gall.”

Mr Boykin took his leave, reflecting that the law would be the most delightful profession in the world if only it didn’t involve these odd little necessities to take care of people; they always wanted things which were, to the legal mind, superfluous and looked badly on itemized statements. Still, the girl had to have some furniture. And she was quite right not to buy it herself. That girl had her head screwed on right.

“What do I do about heat?” asked Monica when he had gone.

“The gas-fire and the hot-plate work from the meter above the door,” said Mrs Merry. “You will be wise always to keep a stock of shillings on hand; it is useless to apply to me, for I simply cannot undertake to make change for my tenants. It is a rule which I have been compelled to make,” she said reproachfully, and left Monica alone in her splendour.


Splendour it was, to Monica, for she had never had a place of her own before, nor had she lived in such a grand house. Mrs Merry’s establishment was in one of South Kensington’s Italianate terraces, with an imposing entrance hall and a handsome, sweeping staircase. It was true that Monica’s rooms were on the floor which had once sheltered the servants, and lacked the high ceilings and ornate plasterwork of the lower apartments: it was true, also, that the gas-fire was an inadequate, popping nuisance, and the inconvenient­ly placed meter demanded shillings with tiresome frequency; and it was true that quite a long journey had to be made to the bathroom on the lower floor, for the large jug and basin were apparently not intended for use. But it was her own place, not to be shared with Alice or anyone, and she had high hopes of it. She settled down to wait for news from Mr Boykin.

During the first week of waiting she passed the time by exploring the part of London in which she found herself. She walked in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. The Albert Memorial, coming to her as a surprise, seemed a beautiful thing, and the Albert Hall, from the outside, splendid. She walked the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert, and told herself that they were immensely educational. She found Cheyne Walk and the river. She became so well known in Harrods that the detectives began to watch her closely. While she was exploring it was not hard to keep her spirits up.

It was another matter when she was in her rooms in Courtfield Gardens. Mrs Merry was no cheerful Cockney; indeed, she was like nothing of which Monica had ever heard. She seemed to be rather grand, for she spoke in a refined manner, making a diphthong of every vowel, and she wore a look of suffering bravely borne which was, in Monica’s eyes, distinguished. If Mrs Merry had given her any encouragement, Monica would have confided in her and sought her advice, but Mrs Merry kept her tenants in their place by an elaborate disdain, which she made particularly frosty for Monica’s benefit. And so Monica spent her evenings alone, sitting on the day-bed as long as she could endure it, and going to bed when she could bear no more. During the first day or two she attempted to get on with War and Peace, but found it depressing, and as time wore on she suffered from that sense of unworthiness which attacks sensitive people who have been rebuffed by a classic. She read magazines and newspapers. There appeared to be an extraordinary amount of rape in London.

Meals were her greatest worry. Where could she eat? There were plenty of places which offered food, it was true, but she did not like any of them. There were horrible, dirty little holes-in-the-wall, which depended heavily on sausages and boiled cabbage for their bill of fare. And there were foreign restaurants which alarmed her because the food was all described in unknown tongues, and incomprehensible purple writing, and besides it was all too expensive to be enjoyed. In Chelsea she found coffee bars, but they seemed to be the exclusive property of oddly-dressed young men and women who made her feel awkward and unwelcome, and anyhow they did not offer much to eat. There were other Chelsea restaurants, kept by very refined ladies who, like Mrs Merry, gave out an atmosphere of highbred grievance; they provided extremely quaint and individual surroundings, stressing Toby jugs and warming-pans, but gave surprisingly little food for what they charged. And none of the food agreed with her. After a few days her largest meal had become a bready, cakey tea at a Kardomah in Brompton Road.

She could cook nothing in her room, for she had no pots — not even a kettle. It was a new and disagreeable experience to Monica to have to go to a public place and choose every bite that she ate, and she quickly came to dread it. She tried to reach Peggy Stamper at the Three Arts Club, but she had gone, leaving no address.

By the end of the second week she had a cold, and could barely repress panic about money. There had been no word from Mr Boykin. Every day, after the tenth day, she had told herself that she would call him on the telephone, or go to Plough Court to find him, but she did not do so, and knew, in her heart, that she was afraid. After all, what assurance had she that Jodrell and Stanhope would really do any­thing for her? Perhaps there had been some change in the situation in Canada; perhaps the Bridgetower Trust had collapsed, or changed its mind; perhaps, owing to one of those muddles about dollar and sterling currency, of which she had vaguely heard, it had proved impossible to get any money to England to support her; perhaps — this was when the cold had taken a turn for the worse — they had forgotten about her, or decided that she would not do, and would disclaim any knowledge of her if she went to see them.

Meanwhile she had made quite a hole in her reserve fund of twenty pounds. Eating was horribly expensive, and she tried to economize by bringing things to her rooms in bags, and eating them there. But this diet of apples and buns brought her no comfort. The cold — feverish and wretched, now, in spite of innumerable shillings pushed into the maw of the gas-meter — the raw damp of a London winter, and the peculiar London smell were wearing her down. She began to have spells of crying at night. And then, as the third week wore on, she dared not cry, because letting down the barriers of her courage in any way brought such horrible speculations, and tumbled her into such abysses of loneliness, that she could not sleep, but lay in her bed for hours, trembling and staring into the darkness. The charm of having her own establishment had utterly worn off, and her two bare rooms echoed hollowly.

She did not pray, for as War and Peace seemed to have lost its magic in crossing the ocean, so did the religion of the Thirteeners. That blatant, narrow faith could not be hitched to anything in her present situation; never, in this strange land, did she hear anyone speak in a voice which suggested the aggressive certainty of Pastor Beamis.

Yet she continued to write home, once a week, saying nothing of her misery and her fears. She was, she told her family, waiting to begin her studies; meanwhile she was seeing something of London.

What was the good of complaining to them? What could they do? And would they not be likely to say that it was just what they expected? Had they not, right up until the last minute, expressed doubt about the whole venture, which only the thought of the easy money kept from bursting into outright contempt? She was outside the range of her religion, and outside the range of her family. Whatever was to come, she must meet it alone.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson